Main > Series > Q & A > Duncan McEwan

(Dubbing Recordist) 

 1. For the dubbing recording part, wasn't that just used for the singing that was taking place within the dance numbers- so they wouldn't sound out of breath from the dancing? Or was it used in other instances?

No! On the set during production, only the dialog is recorded whenever possible. EVERYTHING else is added in post production. Sometimes, a few sound effects get picked up on the production track, but for the most part, the goal of the production mixer is to record dialog.

Before getting too far in, let me start out by defining some movie terms. No. 1 Dubbing. Dubbing is used by the public to mean dialog that is recorded in posted production such as when a foreign language film is "dubbed" into English. In the movie biz the latter process is called "looping" or "ADR." ADR stands for "Automated Dialog Replacement." "Dubbing" on the hand, is the process of mixing all of the dialog tracks, sound effect tracks, and music tracks into a final dubbed "master." Thus the term "foreign dubbed movie" refers to the fact that after the dialog is re-looped into English the show is re-dubbed adding the new dialog to the previously mixed effects and music tracks. To simplify the process, the music, dialog, and effects are kept on separate tracks called "stems."

Getting back to dubbing "Fame." After an episode is shot, not all of the dialog is usable. What can't be used is then looped by the actor in the looping stage. This is the same process used to translate foreign films to English, only when the dialog is English looped to English, it stays in sync. The looped dialog is recorded in a different physical stage than the show was shot. It's smaller, and sometimes you can head the difference. Fame did a good job of matching the looped dialog with the production dialog, but Lorimar Productions didn't like to spend the money it cost to do it right. So you can hear good examples of bad looping on episodes of "Dallas." "Dallas" was shot just a few stages away from the Fame set, and all of the same sound people worked on both shows, myself included.

So to create the sound track for the show, after the dialog was done, the background music would be recorded on the scoring stage, and sound effects tracks created by the effects editors all at the same time the show's picture was being edited. As a rule, and episode is shot in one week, then, on week two, they shoot the next episode, while the editors cut the first. Then the show gets dubbed one day in week three.

The musical numbers would get recorded in a recording studio (Like those in the music industry, rather than the film industry.) I don't know where this was done, but I seem to recall it was off the lot across town. The only way to film someone singing and keeping it in sync is to have them sing over a play back. So, the songs would be played back on the set during filming. The cast would sing, dance, and play instruments (If they were seen playing. ) over this playback. They use a copy of the recoring on the set, and the original goes to the music mixer. All of the sounds you hear in a musical number, such as the footsteps, or clothing movements, and such are ALL added in post-production in a process called "Foley."

Foley is a process where the show's picture is projected on a screen in a special stage. A recorder runs in sync with the projector, and special sound effects editors called "Foley walkers." create the sounds. They are called Foley "walkers" because a large part of their job is creating the sound of footsteps. The term Foley is for its inventor, Jack Foley.

2. Did you tape in joke reels of bloopers & stuff?

There are blooper reels, but I never got to see one. I was laid off from the studio before the first one was done. I worked for the studio M~G~M; that is the facility. I worked on every show on the lot, plus a bunch that were shot in other studios, or even countries, then have their post-production work done back at M~G~M. "Dallas" was the best show for bloopers. But all shows have them.

3. Were you there when Lee Curreri did the "Sho Sho Sho Shorofsky" song?

Yes. That is, I was at M~G~M. The original recording of the song was made off the lot prior to filming, and at some other studio. Then it was played back on the set for filming. The recording was then added as a track for dubbing by the music editor. Then it was mixed in the dubbing process, with me on the recorder. The recorder used in motion picture dubbing is located in a different room from the dubbing theater. The dubbing theater looks like a small movie house with only a few rows of seats, and a LARGE mixing console in the back. The recording room is downstairs from the theaters at M~G~M. The mix is recorded onto 35mm film with a magnetic emulsion rather than a photographic one, to simplify the sync. (Nowadays it's done on digital stuff. Specialized computers based mostly on the MacIntosh.)I was on the recorder for the dubb of the episode with "Sho-Sho-Sho-Shorofsky." I laughed my head off.

In the sound department, Fame was special. It got special treatment from most of us. So I was really into the characters and stories while I was working on it. Sometimes, a friend of mine named Richard Barns, whose job it was to transfer the 1/4" audio tapes from the set to 35mm magnetic recording film, would tease me about what was coming up in the next episode. Since he only worked with the production tracks, and the music is not recorded on the set, he had not heard the song. I called him into the dubbing stage machine room, which was adjacent to the transfer department, to let him hear it. He thought it was pretty funny too. I don't know at what point the song's lyrics were revealed to Albert Hague. I knew him then however, and know he probably laughed pretty heard at it.

4. What differences did you notice from the movie to the tv series? Stuff that we as the average viewer wouldn't notice?

Wow! Good question. There has been a LOT of ink spilled on the difference between feature films and TV shows. Known by some as "televisionizing" a movie, there are a LOT of differences in how you do a TV series from a feature film. The classic example of the difference is the difference between M*A*S*H the movie, and M*A*S*H the TV show. The TV version is more "cutesy" than the film.

The differences between features and TV shows are many, and in many departments. It begins with writing the script. A script written for a series is different than a script for theatrical release. Hoe you create the characters is different. It goes way beyond the differences in methods of photography. Once you understand these differences, you can also understand why you don't want to wait for a feature film to come to video to watch it. You lose a lot. Not just from the picture being smaller visually, but the emotional involvement is not as deep.

Okay, some specifics. Photography:

The screen in a movie theater sits above your level line of site, thus, you look up at a movie screen, planning for this, DP's (Director of Photography) and directors plan the camera to sit low, and look up at the world. Televisions tend to sit low, so television show are shot with the camera sitting higher, looking down. There are lots of exceptions to this, such as when the camera is deliberately high looking down from above, Etc. but for general photography, its this way. The first show to experiment with a differet style of photography, and a different format for a TV show was, well, "Fame." The camera sat lower for fame than say for CHiPs, Dallas, or Little House on the Prairie. You'll notice the camera frames closeups of characters just a little more closely than other shows of the same era.

Another difference is the use of the lens. You can shoot a man standing on a street with the camera close to him, and a wide angle lens, or you can bakc the camera away from him, and use a telephoto lens to make his image the same size on the screen as the first method. What will be different is the way the background will look. The close, wide angle shot will have the street appear to stretch off in the distance behind the actor. The distance telephoto shot will have the street squashed up right behind him, making it look very crowded. The actor's figure will blend into the background rather than stand out from it. This leads to another cool type of shot, seen in the film Apollo Thirteen. When commander Jim Lovell reports they are definitely venting oxygen out into space, we cut to a medium shot of Ed Harris in Mission Control. Although he remains the same size on screen, you can watch the background zoom out away from him. This was done by starting the shot with the camera backed up, and the lens zoomed, then moving the camera on a crane in up close to Harris, while zooming the lens out at the same time, and timing the speed so Harris' face remains the same size on screen. Alfred Hitchcock actually invented the technique for his film Vertigo, when Cary Grant looks down the spiral stairway.

The difference here is in TV photography, the camera tends to be close to the subject with a wider lens, and feature film photography uses distantly places cameras with telephoto lenses. A good example from Fame is when Bruno's father drives his taxi in front of the school and plays Bruno's music on loudspeakers, leading to a lot of street dancing. Most of the photography was shot with the camera back up quite a ways off with a telephoto lens to squash the street and make it look more crowded.

Today, as audiences are becoming accustomed to watching theatrical films on their TV sets, TV series are becoming much more cinematic in their style. Shows like "NYPD Blue" and "ER" are shot just like Feature Films. This style change goes back to "Hill Street Blues." One adjustment they would make if they made a feature film of these shows, is less camera movement with the Steady-cam, or smoother movement with it.. On the big screen, that kind of photography would make many people motion sick.

Writing/Acting differences:

Characters in films tend to be more real, and natural. On television series (Not necessarily movies made or TV.) The characters tend to be "bigger than life" or more like characterchers of the characters. The best comparison I can give of this is to compare Robert Duvall's Frank Burns in the movie M*A*S*H to Larry Lindville's Frank Burns in the TV series. You can actually believe Duvall's Maj. Burns achieved the rank of Major. Acting for a TV series would be labeled "over acting" for a feature.

Look at the difference between the Leroy Johnson of the TV series and the Leroy Johnson of the film. Which one would you let YOUR daughter go out with? Looking at the use of language, Leroy of the film uses the F-word a LOT. Leroy of the TV series wouldn't. Not because of the TV sensors, but because of the difference in his personality. The TV Leroy was a much happier person, with an optimistic outlook on life. (And a lot more like Gene was in person. He's a real delight to talk to.)

These differences are a combination of how the parts are written as well as how they are performed.

Sound differences:

The difference in the environment in which we watch films versus TV shows dictates a lot of differences in the way the sound is designed. It goes way beyond just the technical aspects. For example, in the area of technical differences, the film was recorded in six track Dolby surround sound, while the TV series wasn't even in stereo. This is because back then, most people listened to TV shows with a three inch diameter speaker on their TV sets. We even had TV's in the dubbing studios to test how the mix would sound. (Many times when you mix in a dubbing theater, a lot of sound gets lost in the mix, when it's played back on a small TV speaker.)

These limitations also create a difference in the creative use of sound. TV shows in those days would have fewer sound effects that their film counterparts even if there was no constraints by the budget. Not just because of the speaker, but because you want a different psychological effect that you get with a feature. The sound track in a feature is more intimate than TV. There's a lot of subtle stuff added to a feature that is just not necessary for TV.

There's also differences in what you choose for sound effects, and how you record them. Film effects are more natural, while TV effects are not so. TV has less use of background ambience than features. (This is less true today than back when Fame was in production.) When TV shows were monophonic, too many effects could clutter the sound track. In a feature with a stereo track, the sound can be separated directionally, and thus, be separate from the dialog, allowing for more effects. (Sound effects doesn't mean anything that is contrived and added, but everything you hear that isn't music or dialog.) An example of a difference could be this: In the pilot episode of the TV series, Julie Miller (Lori Singer) plays an audition piece on her cello. (So complex it took me three days just to learn to hum it.) The only added sound that I can remember is the occasional creek of her chair. Had it been fr othe film, we would have added the mechanical sounds of the cello such as the bow striking the strings, the friction sound of the bow strings scraping across the cello's strings. We would also hear the sound her cloths make as she moves her arms to play, and the constant sound of the chair's movement, not just the occasional creek. All of these would be added in a process called "Foley" in which the sound effects are recorded in front of a projection of the image with a recorder running in sync. Omitting all this detail for television, is not just for budget. If all this had been added for TV, it would have sounded unnatural.

 On a TV in our homes, we tend to hear dialog at the same volume as someone speaking in the room with us. The world in TV is at the same level as the real world. In a theater, everything is amplified. That means even the hiss we hear if we sit in a quiet room with no sound. If you sit in a quiet room, you'll hear a faint hiss coming from your ears. This hiss is simulated and added in feature film f quiet scenes. Without it, during quiet passages, it would sound like the sound system in the theater is being turned on and off.

What about movies we watch on home video? I hear you ask. Well, right after a feature film is dubbed (mixed) they come back into the studio and mix a TV version. The sound track you hear on a home video release of a film is not the same as the one used in the theatrical release. The same tracks are used in the mix, but the way they are mixed is different. A lot of the effects are omitted, and the tonal quality is changed, a process called "EQ-ing." (Equalization.)

5. How long did you work on Fame (movie and series)?

I worked on the movie for six weeks beginning March 3rd, 1980 seven days a week, and 12 hours a day. The only reason I remember the date so well is that I had taken up skydiving the Saturday before, March 1st and that date is in my logbook for skydiving. It was real Hell. It was THE toughest film I ever did.

I worked on the first season of the TV series from the pilot until the end of the first season. I was laid off that summer. (1982) I returned about a year later for a week, but as a customer. I had produced and directed a TV commercial for a science fiction convention, and decided to dubb it back "home." I just had to see the look on their faces when I came back as a producer. While I was there, I took a trip to the fame set. The kind folks in security thought I was "back" as in re-hired, and I didn't bother to correct them.

6. Did you become friends with anyone in the cast? Are you still in contact with anyone from the show?

 did become friends with some of the cast. Lori Singer, Albert Hague, Debbie Allen, Gene Anthony Ray, and Erica Gimbel. I met most of the others, but didn't really get to know them. Fame and "Little House on the Prairie" were about the only show on the lot that didn't have closed sets. Since I worked in post-production, I didn't really have any "official" business on the set, but since they were open, I used to visit on my lunch hour, or after I got off work, and they were filming late. (Which was every day.) Since Fame was special to us, I spent a lot of time visiting the set whenever I could. (Little House was so open, you could bring your friends to visit. I used to call it "Open House on the Prairie.") ChiPs was also open, but nobody cared about that show, so we never visited the set. The story of HOW I got to know the cast of Fame is a bit different. . .

When I first started working on the fame TV show, most of us in the sound department get pretty excited about it. Up to then the best thing we were doing was "Dallas." (I'm one of the guys who got to know who shot J.R.)

We started meeting the cast members when they came to the sound department to loop dialog. (Looping is what the public calls "dubbing.") When I saw Lori, I couldn't believe my eyes. She has the most amazing blue eyes in person. (Which do not photograph. Not like they look in person.) I've have never seen a photograph, nor a film or TV appearance where she looks as good as she does in person. (You can probably guess where this is going.) She didn't appear to be much younger than me, (It turns out she's older than me by three days less than a year. Her birthday is Nov 6th, 1957 and Mine is Nov 3rd, 1958. So what could I say, I was smitten, but, I knew no one who knew her to introduce me to her. So I decided I would have to find a way to do this myself.

Do you remember a scene in the film Anchors Aweigh when Gene Kelley sang a love song to Kathryn Grayson on an empty sound stage to romance her? Well, needless to say, this vision was dancing in my head. And in the very same studio! Maybe even on the same sound stage. I don't know which stage that scene was filmed, but my guess is 30. It's a very large stage with a water tank in it. It's where they filmed all those Esther Williams musicals with the girls swimming the choreography in a large pool. It's also where they filmed Poltergeist. The pool that had the corpses float out was the same pool! Fame was filmed in the next building, in 27.[I've since read that it was 26, But I seem to remember it being 27. I may be confusing it with the production numbers for the episodes. They were all 27-something. The pilot was 2790 for example.] Stages 29, and 30 share the same building, then there's a street, then 26, and 27.)

Anyway, I was to be on my own to introduce myself to her. The first season was coming to a close in the beginning of February, 1982. Valentines day was coming. I decided I'd go for broke, and give her a valentine. . .But what kind? How to make an impression, while competing with the romance of a movie studio. . .and not just any studio, M~G~M - the studio of romance!

Back in those days, See's candies had a heart shaped box of chocolates that weighed in at 20 pounds. (Ten is the biggest I've seen in recent history.) It was also a single layer box, so it was really huge! I joked about having to hire the Deakin's Piano Movers to deliver it.

I decided that simply store bought was not good enough. So I removed ALL the candy, and modified the bottom of the box. I attached a Sony Walkman to the bottom and wired the headphone output to a small amp, and some speakers. (No sweat, I'm a sound man right?) Then I rigged a small hidden switch to the point of the heart to trigger the tape when the lid was opened. Then I made a recoding of the "Romeo and Juliet" theme on a loop tape from an answering machine. (In those days they all had to use tape.) Then I reloaded the candy. I noticed that See's topped the box with a plastic rose. Ha! Plastic. Is my love artificial? I don't think so. So I went to the Culver City Florist and bought a live orchid. I went back to See's and got another box to use as a stand to hide all the tape gear.

During this time I learned that the show was going to wrap for the season BEFORE valentine's day. UGH! What to do. Then one day, I saw Albert Hague in the commissary, and joined him for lunch. I introduced myself, and told him I had been a dubbing recordist on the film, and proceeded to tell him what I was up to. He told me not to worry. "In two weeks, they're having a wrap party on the 13th,[?] and your young lady will be there."

"Gee, thanks" I said. So the plan was on.

On the day of the party, I brought the "valentine" to the studio. I could not leave it in my car as it would melt. Now I was faced with another dilemma - I've kept my feelings secret from everybody except Albert, and one other sound man in transfer named Richard Barns. No one else knew, and I was always the kid in school who got picked on. The sound Dept. Wasn't that much different. Some of the guys were going to have a field day with me on this one. Well, duty calls, the chocolate must be saved. So I brought the thing into the sound Dept. I set it on a table by the recorder I was working on. As predicted, all of the guys on one crew (The "cool" crew, at least in their minds.) Tried to have fun with me. Except, one. Jory Beckert, the crew chief for one of the dubbing crews. (Jory also worked with me on the movie Fame.) I became real popular with Jory, as well as some of the other girls in the department. People from all over were coming over to my recorder to se it. Richard joked with me about having people sign a guest book. "Think of the autographs you'd get!" I was dumbfounded by the fact that Richard worked in a major studio full time yet was star struck. I finally told him " I don't ask for autographs, I sign them. I had been going to Science fiction conventions as a celebrity for working on Poltergeist and Brainstorm. I had kept this a secret as I didn't want the other guys to make fun of me for that either.

So anyway, I soon realized I knew nothing about her other than her name, and that she actually played the cello. (I took me three days just to learn to HUM the piece she plays as Julie Miller for her audition to the school in the pilot episode.) I had no idea whether or not she had a boyfriend or what. What if she did, and he was there? That afternoon, I saw Erica Gimbel outside the looping stage. I said "hi" to her, and asked her to step into my lair. I introduced myself, and told her what I was up to, and showed her the valentine. (She has a TV commercial on now in which you can get a glimpse of the look she had on her face.) I asked her if she knew whether or not Lori had a boyfriend, and she said she didn't think so.

Finally, one of the shortest days I've ever worked (I was really having fun with all the attention.) The day came to an end, and they opened the door to stage 27. I wandered down to see if the coast was clear, and found the cast was off at diner. Caterers were preparing for the party that was to come. I returned to the sound department, got the "piano" and headed back to the stage. (They are at opposite ends of the studio, so the walk is almost a city block long. I was spotted by a transportation driver I knew whose job it was to drive the actors around. She picked me up (Something she would never have done normally.) and drove me the rest of the way, then got out of the car, to check this thing out as I set it up. I put a card on it with Lori's name written on it in an imitation of the red "Fame" logo. I then left, not wanting to be found in the stage too early. I didn't want Lori to know who I was. The plan was, if she was with somebody, I'd chicken out, and not come forward. (Granted, the card was signed with my name, and phone extension.)

Party Time! I arrived a little after things got under way, and the stage had a crowd large enough I get hide in it. I found Erica, and asked her if Lori was there. She said "yes" and pointer her out to me. She was standing by the valentine reading the card. Her friends were asking her who I was and she was telling them she didn't know. I also saw my friend Richard standing there with his camera. (This was a shock, as bringing a camera inside the studio takes one hell of a clearance.) He saw me before she did, and told me he got her picture with the valentine.

"You what??!!"

"Yeah. I told her `I'm supposed to get this' and took her picture."

"You told her you were "supposed" to get the picture?!?"

I was livid. That was the kind of thing I would NEVER do. What would she think? I want to brag about dating a star? God no.

Well, there was just one thing left to do. (Besides killing Richard.) So I worked up some courage, and introduced myself. She was shy and reserved, but really impressed. Ironically, I ultimately got to know everyone else in the cast better than her. She also was not staying late at the party. She was going back to New York that night. She said the show was going to film another couple of episodes and that they would be back in only two weeks. She also asked me if I could hang on to the valentine until then, as she could not take it on the plane. At the close of the party, I sent her off with the orchid.

Two weeks later, I had arraigned to have the valentine on the set the morning they were to begin filming. I had replaced all the candy with fresh candy. I scored big on the after Valentine's Day sale. I was also able to get more variety by buying ten 2-pound boxes individually. I also bought another live orchid.

Back at the studio, I had a difficult time getting to see Lori. I worked in post-production, not on the set, and it was really hard getting my lunch hour "synchronized" with theirs. We never did date. Shortly after they came back the show wrapped, and they were off back to New York. I was laid off the following August before they came back for the next season. She didn't seem too interested in me either. I found out years later that she was spoken for.

The teasing didn't stop, though. About a third of the way into the first season of Fame, he became the dubbing recordist, and I worked on something called an "M&E" recording. M&E stands for "Music and Effects." It a special recording of the soundtrack sans dialog which is sent overseas along with a print of the picture and a script. Fame was dubbed into six foreign languages. Dan was on the dubbing recorder the day we dubbed episode 2717 [I remember the production number, but not the name of the episode, go figure.] It's the episode where Julie Miller falls in love with that student teacher. She sings "It's Going to be a Long Night" in it. Dan called me over to his recorder this day. It has a closed circuit TV monitor showing the picture. He wanted me to see the close up of Julie kissing the teacher. "There you go Duncan. This is what you get when you date an actress." I didn't bother telling him I was moonlighting as an actor myself, or that I knew this about kissing on screen since I was a child. The next day, when I came back from my lunch hour, I found some film sitting at my recorder. It was picture, not sound film, so I knew something was up. I took it to a Movieola, for look. (A Movieola is an editing machine. It the thing Bob Hopkins puts a studio chief's necktie in, in one scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It was, of course, the shot of Lori kissing the guy. This was during the two week mini-hiatus, si I got to tell her about it when I returned the valentine to her. (I'm leaving out the detils of why we never got togther, both to protect her privacy, and to keep this from getting really dull.)

About 1996 I was working as a medic for The Universal Big Top Circus when they were in Los Angeles. During one performance, the ringmaster announced that Debbie Allen was in the audience and pointed her out to everyone. When the show was over, I went over and spoke with her. Now, at the circus, I had a beard, while back on Fame, I was clean shaven. (Not to mention 14 years younger.) I was in an EMT uniform, with a stethoscope around my neck. She was greeting fans, and EXTREMELY gracious. When she saw me, she right away started talking to me. She asked me if I traveled with the show, and I said "no" I just worked while they were in L.A. "Being a medic is not my first job. I'm actually a Hollywood soundman." She said "Oh, really, what shows have you done." I had to fight the grin really hard at this point. I replies "Well, I was full time staff in the sound department at M~G~M in Culver City. I worked on just about everything that was shot there. I did this one show you may have heard of, it was called "Fame." Her face lit rigth up. "You worked on Fame?!?" "Yes, both the movie and the first season of the TV show." I then said "Remember the valentine?" and that was all that needed to be said. She instantly knew who I was. I was more identifiable by that valentine than I knew. (Needles to say my bosses at the circus treated me a lot better after this.) It was really cool. She also told me that she had stayed in touch with some of the kids, such a Gene Anthony Ray. She also asked me for my phone number, but I haven't heard from her. So, no I'm not still in touch with anyone from Fame. I'm also not in touch with any of the crew, or anyone from the sound department. I don't even know where half of those people are these days. I've noticed over the years via screen credits in movies that some of my former co-workers became mixers, then they disappeared. It's kinda wired. I don't see any names of sound editors I knew anymore. Rarely, I see the name of someone I knew. Two are notable. Dialog editor Michael Benevante, who was an apprentice editor when we worked together. Coincidentally enough, we went to high school together and sang in the choir together. He recognized me one day at the studio. He still works out there in Hollywood. Another is Dan Sharp. Dan is now a mixer. I still see his name in film credits from time to time.

I heard a rumor that the valentine was mentioned by the L.A. Times in the Entertainment section, but I never saw it personally.

After the show wrapped, I wrote a parody of "It's Going to be a Long Night."

(You kind of have to fit the extra syllables to make it fit the melody.)

The show's wrapped,

And the Stage is closed,

The kids are on their way back home.

I feel I'll die of a broken heart,

‘cause I'll still be here all alone.


And, It's gonna be a long hiatus season,

Waiting for production to start.

And there's this longing in my heart,

‘Till they all return back here. . .

It's gonna be a long year.

7. When the cast went in to record their songs, what happened to those recordings once they were incorporated into the show? Were they discarded or do they still exist today?

They're in a vault somewhere. Some were re-mixed into stereo (The show was mixed in Mono.) And released as soundtrack albums.

8. Was an entire song recorded even if only a small clip of someone singing the song was used in the show?

Yes. They never know in advance what part will be used, or how much. Also, they had plans to release the soundtrack albums.



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